My dad and I finished packing up the car and pulled out of the driveway at mid-day. It was a last-minute change of plans; we had originally planned to camp and county list in Northern Neck, but a Brown Booby was found a couple hours south near the North Carolina border at Kerr Reservoir Dam. So, we planned to first chase the booby, and then spend the next day county listing around the Southern Piedmont: the most underbirded region of Virginia.
Several minutes after merging onto I-64, I checked eBird, finding that the booby had not been refound at the dam. To my surprise, an email reported that another booby had been found at Jones Neck near Richmond. The same bird, or a wave of several boobies coming through the state?
We decided to continue with our original plan of birding Southside Virginia, first dropping by some areas around the neck to look for the second booby.
We arrived at Deep Bottom Park, immediately hearing several Yellow-throated Warblers singing their shrill, spiraling warbles from sycamores across the James River: a sign of springtime.
I set up my scope on the dock, and scanned down the narrow river. Three perched Bald Eagles called nearby, and another soared overhead. After more scanning, I noticed a large flock of Tree Swallows circling around in the distance. Two more Bald Eagles flew in as we departed: a total of six at the one spot.
We hopped back on the highway and quickly exited, checking out one more vantage point of the river. After parking on a neighborhood road, I started walking through a field, flushing five snipe underfoot. As I approached a pond, several more flushed off the muddy shore. Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows worked the pond, and a Blue-gray Gnatcather called from the nearby woods.
After walking a bit further, we came to a cliff edge overlooking the James, but here the river was far wider. Several Osprey circled overhead, occasionally shrieking and dive-bombing in an attempt to scare us away from a nearby nest. After reaching a respectful distance from the pair, I scanned the river carefully, checking buoys, snags, and flocks of cormorants on the open water. No booby was found, so we headed back towards the car, flushing about fifteen more Wilson’s Snipe and finding a cute Killdeer family along the way.
Back on 95, we began the long drive south to Emporia. This area of the Southern Piedmont was one I had never visited, so I hoped to add some new species for each county to fill up my Virginia map on eBird.
We entered Prince George County, and stopped at Carson Wetland to see if the Anhihgas had returned. It was about a week early for them, but we thought it was worth the try. A Double-crested Cormorant and a Great Egret were all that greeted us when we arrived at the cyprus swamp.
Back on the road, I county listed throughout the rest of Prince George, then Sussex, and finally entered Greenville County, which I had never birded in before.
We took an exit that led to a lake, and birded it for a while, seeing very little aside from a Barn Swallow, Yellow-throated Warblers, a Pine Warbler, gnatcatchers, and Golden-crowned Kinglets.
We headed back towards 95, but were stopped by a large mixed flock in a graveyard. Pine Warblers, Palm Warblers, Yellow-throated Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers worked the edge, while a phoebe called from a tree and a towhee from the brush.
The thermals were strong, and three Red-tailed Hawks circled overhead, while a Northern Harrier glided overhead. A Killdeer called in the distance from a large field. As we were about to leave, an early migrant White-eyed Vireo sang, and a familiar squeaking sound came from the top of a pine tree: a Brown-headed Nuthatch! A primarily coastal plain species in Virginia, nuthatches are always a treat to see in the piedmont.
We entered the city of Emporia, adding grackles, Fish Crows, and starlings to the list. After a quick gas and coffee break, we headed west.
Shortly, we crossed over into Brunswick County, the most underbirded county in the entire state. Not much was out along the road other than meadowlarks and bluebirds, until I spotted a Common Raven flying by. I somehow managed to bend back and snap a photo of the third county record through the rear windshield.
We left Brunswick, entiering Mecklenburg County. I had already birded Mecklenburg before in September, but was hoping to add some species during the trip. We spotted Wild Turkeys, kestrels, and meadowlarks from the car.
We arrived at Kerr Dam with low expectations of finding the booby. Rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers and Horned Grebes sat on the lake side, while hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants and fishermen gathered at the dam outlet: a feeding frenzy of fish. A single Redhead dived with the cormorants.
Osprey and Bald Eagles flew above, and Black Vultures congregated on the sycamores and rock ledges by the water. Three Caspian Terns flew in, but no booby.
We dispersed with the cormorants as the sun approached the horizon, arriving a couple minutes later at the North Bend Campground gate, where I added a handful of county lifers, from junco to thrasher.
Shortly, we pitched the tent on an isolated site at the water’s edge, where Ospreys, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Wood Ducks returned to their roosts. After inflating mattresses and unrolling sleeping bags, we decided to make the forty minute commute to South Hill for Five Guys (worth it).
We got back to the campground filled with burgers, peanuts, and soda, where we watched the NCAA Championship Game. After a rather disappointing ending, we fell asleep to the songs of Spring Peepers and Coastal Plains Leopard Frogs.
Awakened by the songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, chickadees, titmice, and Yellow-throated and Pine Warblers, we packed our gear and took down the tent, which was covered in a thick layer of frost.
In a matter of minutes we reached Tailrace Park, where we hoped to find the booby. The same species from the past evening were present, in addition to Bonaparte’s Gulls and some Cliff Swallows. I got distracted photographing the gulls, a species I saw very infrequently, before realizing that we had birds to see.
We entered Dick Cross, a Wildlife Management Area just down the road, where half a dozen Yellow-throated Warblers sang from the pines. White-throated and and Chipping Sparrows flocked, and a White-eyed Vireo sang from a blooming bush down the gravel road. I successfully located and photographed the early migrant.
We parked at the trailhead that led to a large pond. It was bone-chillingly cold, so my dad turned around minutes later. I pushed through, distracted by the songs of potential county lifers.
I reached the edge of the so-called pond, which looked more like a very flooded field, and immediately flushed three snipe underfoot. The metallic call note of dozens of Swamp Sparrows dominated the atmosphere. Aside from the marsh birds, it was uncomfortably quiet. Some Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers flew by. On my way back, the snipe were a bit more cooperative.
I returned to the car to find my dad bundled up with a cup of coffee.
Just north of Dick Cross, we turned onto Baskerville Road, where expansive agriculture fields were dotted with abandoned homes. An old irrigation system ran parallel to the road, and dozens of Chipping and Savannah Sparrows perched on it. We pulled over at an abandoned brick house left of the road, and began to scan telephone wires, conspicuous snags, and fences for a Loggerhead Shrike. My dad and I walked down a side road, where we came across several workers wearing face masks. One of them told us we couldn’t be within a mile radius of the area because they were spraying chemicals on the fields, and that they had forgotten to post signs due to the deserted nature of the area. Scared for our lives, my dad and I turned back for the car, when I spotted the a little gray bird on a distant irrigation system. I snapped some photos before we evacuated the area.
Back at Kerr, we stopped at an observation area on the lake side of the dam. Just short of a hundred swallows swarmed around me and perched on nearby trees. The vast majority of them were Tree, with good numbers of Northern Rough-winged and Barn Swallows mixed in. I spent around thirty minutes photographing the swallows, entranced by their elegant flight over the pure white water.
I took a lot of Tree Swallow photos.
After a momentary slip into camera birder mode, we drove fifteen minutes south to Palmer Point for Brown-headed Nuthatches.
The point was covered in mature pine forest, a habitat that Brown-headed Nuthatches are inextricably tied to. Yet again, we had multiple Yellow-throated and Pine Warblers singing. I walked down to the waters edge. Suddenly, the strange, weeping song of a lone Common Loon filled the air. I spotted its distant silhouette through the thick fog rising off the lake. I then heard the squeaking call of a nuthatch, and seconds later spotted it foraging in a Loblolly Pine overhead. He swooped down a bit closer to check me out.
My pishing worked a little too well, and got him very agitated. He tended to stay near a tree with a small cavity in it: a possible nest site.
We then began to head back in the direction of Charlottesville, taking a detour along the way to visit a spot I had heard about from my friend Drew.
My dad waited at the car as I walked down the road of an abandoned farm. The dirt road became overgrown with brambles until it became a narrow trail through dense mixed woods. It came to an overgrown pasture with more mature pine forest on the other side. I hopped an old barb-wire fence and entered the woods after being mobbed by a pair of nesting Red-shouldered Hawks, where I heard the familiar songs of Pine and Yellow-throated Warblers. As I continued through the mature woods, the songs of the two warblers were never out of earshot. Shortly, I turned onto a trail that entered open pine woods with tall grass and bramble understory.
I spotted a dragonfly gliding by me, and followed it until it perched on the ground. It was a freshly emerged Harlequin Darner, which I managed to sneak up to and pick up. I placed it on a nice-looking perch for photos.
The dragonfly turned out to be a first county record and the easternmost record in the state.
I reached the end of the trail, where I added a few species, including Brown Thrasher, Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, and Hermit Thrush.
My dad picked me up at the road, where I found a discarded cardboard sign reading “Brunswick Stew at Ebeneezer Church” with an arrow pointing to the left. It was Brunswick County after all, home of the Brunswick Stew.
We took a slightly longer route north that went through Lunenberg County, which I had never birded in before. We stopped on the side of the road a handful of times when we heard bird activity, accumulating a total of around 30 species from the car.
We entered the town of Crewe in Nottoway County, and searched for the tiny population of Eurasian Collared-Doves there. After much thorough searching in train stations, junkyards, and neighborhoods, we dipped. I got a Hardee’s burger for consolation.
Amelia County was brief; we only found a few birds to add to my county list.
As dusk approached, we noticed a dramatic decrease in bird activity, but nonetheless arrived at Powhatan State Park in Powhatan County: the last new county of the trip. I added many of the same common birds from previous stops, adding a couple dozen species for our final stop of the day.
Our day list total was 89, not too bad for a cold day in early spring migration!